This is my final blog from the RSC symposium on synthesis in organic chemistry, and it’s been great. The undoubted highlight came last night, when Ian Fleming (now an emeritus professor) gave a brilliant overview of his career, describing all the influences that culminated in his famous work on the use of silyl groups in organic synthesis.
Starting from his work as grad student, he presented the highs (and occasional lows) of his career with wit and candour. He began his working life in the 1950s, at a time when state-of-the-art spectroscopy meant IR and combustion analysis was often the linchpin of your analytical data. NMR had only just been invented and was only to be used “if you were desperate”, as he put it. And if you did get an NMR, you needed good eyesight, because the resulting spectra were smaller than dollar bills. Even a couple of decades later, 10 g of sample were still required for a carbon-13 NMR experiment.
It was a fascinating story, peppered with amusing anecdotes – for example, as a grad student, he had to cover all his samples with watch glasses, to stop his PhD supervisor from absent-mindedly tipping ash into them from his pipe. And it was fascinating to get the inside story of some of the historic achievements in organic chemistry – such as Woodward’s synthesis of vitamin B12.
Fleming spoke for 90 minutes and was rewarded with a standing ovation – not something that I’ve ever seen before at a chemistry conference. It was an evocative description of a bygone era, delivered by one of the last remaining gentleman chemists, and I felt privileged to witness it.
So, thumbs up to Cambridge. The next meeting in this series will be in two years time – I heartily recommend it, and I hope I’ll see you all there!
Andrew Mitchinson (Associate Editor, Nature)